REVIEW: Günter Karl Bose – “PHOTOMATON” (2013)


By Sören Schuhmacher, ASX Germany, February 2013

“Photomaton – The new artistic portrait” was the slogan which advertised the Photomaton Studios in the late 1920’s. The first machines were set up at public places in several German cities, where a cross-section of society passed by every day. For just one Reichsmark, the currency at this time, it was now possible to take a portrait of yourself, anonymous – even by the photographer, who was in this case a machine. The Photomaton captured the expressions of its subjects as they gazed into its mirror. This lent a very special and narcissistic appeal to it’s procedure. Fortunately, the machine also determined its own time sequence for the shutter, which left room for magical coincidence.

Günter Karl Bose, professor at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, presents in “Photomaton”, 500 portraits of women, men and children that were made in Germany between 1928 and 1945. These pictures all come from his own collection, which he has built over the years by visiting countless flea markets and searching the internet. The size of the images vary between the original size of the photo-booth picture and an enlarged version, which fills a whole page. In the introduction Günter Karl Bose gives a short insight into the history of the Photomaton. Also he outlines the historical and political background of the time and refers to the work of Walter Benjamin, August Sander and Georg Grosz.

The book is a fascinating journey into the past, where it is possible to see the changes of time based on the portraits of the people. In the beginning people were inexperienced in their posing in front of the camera. They laugh and smile, from serious to cheerful, shy to timid. Not sure where to look at, they glance up or down or to the side, sometimes with the eyes closed, or straight into the camera. Carnival costumes, uniforms, hairstyles, and accessories like pets, flowers or cigarettes allow us to draw conclusions on the lives of the people, conclusions that would become increasingly difficult during the second World War. The once exuberant faces slowly disappear until the glamour is totally gone. Women started to wear headscarves towards the end because, during the war, there was hardly any opportunity to have their hair done. Nameless fates, many questions, and never any answers, each portrait tells its own story.

The downfall of the Weimar Republic and seizure of power by the Nazis was a time where ones own face and the faces of others started to play an important role. Never before were people dealt with so extensively over the questions and implications of their physical appearance, than in this time.

In 1929 August Sander’s famous “Face of our Time” was published and later he would be accused and seized by the Nazis as a “leaderless document of a physiognomic”.

Walter Benjamin wrote in 1931 about Sander’s work:

“The author did not approach this enormous undertaking as a scholar, or with the advice by race theorists or social researchers, but, as the publisher says ‘from direct observation.’ Work like Sander’s could overnight assume unlooked-for topicality. Sudden shifts of power such as are now overdue in our society can make the ability to read facial types a matter of vital importance. Whether one is of the Left or the Right, one will have to get used to being looked at in terms of one’s provenance. And one will have to look at others at the same way. Sander’s work is more than a picture book. It is a training manual.”

“Photomaton” by Günter Karl Bose can be seen as continuation of August Sander’s “Face of our Time”.  In a powerful way, it functions as a “training manual”, making the characteristics of the individual visible and serving as a collective German self-portrait for this period of time.




Edition of 500 copies
Offset printing
208 pages, mixture of paperback and stiff brochure; thread-stitching
23,5 cm x 29,5 cm
Design by Günter Karl Bose and Katharina Triebe







[nggallery id=439]

Posted in Photography, Reviews and tagged , , , , .


  1. Let me begin by saying that the book Photomaton is beautiful. It is very well printed and contains a large number of really, really great portraits. I agree with mr. Schumacher that it is a fascinating journey into the past.

    However, on another point, I tend to have a different look at the book. Personally, I don’t see the connection with Sander’s work. As far as I can see, Sander was conciously attempting to create an index of human appearances, a table that needed to be filled, in much in the same way a botanist would try to find and describe a specimen of each type of orchid. However, at the Photomaton, that selection was not a concious one as it was in Sander’s case, because no physical photographer was involved to do the picking and choosing. Here, the selection took place through various motives: economy (can I afford to have my picture taken?), availability (do I have a Photomaton in the vicinity?), cultural frame of reference (is it accepted practice in my circles to have your picture taken?), et cetera. However, the selection was not made on the principal of appearance of the people who had their picture taken. Anyone who could afford to do so and lived in the vicinity, could dress up, go in and have their picture taken. No botanist was at work in the Photomaton.

    One more point which makes this book so compelling to photographers is that it raises intriguing questions about the role of the photographer in the proces of picture taking. If a mere machine could take these pictures, why use a photographer at all? It is basically the same question that, e.g., Doug Rickard is asking in A New American Picture: what is the role of a photographer in this type of photography if a machine can do it this good?

  2. I agree with you on all your points in relation to the comparison with August Sanders work. It cannot be seen as a continuation of it, as the book is a selection of photos that were taken with no objectives, in isolation from each other. No matter how carefully selected, the photos remain unintentional. Even the matter of their quality and composition are random, depending on vaguaries such as the quality of the servicing of the machine and whether the subject chose the right moment to pose (or not) etc . Having said that this book is one of my favourite books about photobooth photos and it stands up very well on its own merit, without the need to be compared in this way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.